You know all the rules already: we need to build good habits and get rid of bad ones. Wait, not so fast! Habits are a lot more subtle than that.
A habit is the way you act because you are comfortable with the result. Once an action works, we repeat it without thinking: picking up the coffee mug with the same hand, rolling up the toothpaste tube (or not), starting the car before putting on the seat belt. Actions are habitual. Sometimes they are inconsequential, sometimes necessary (signaling before you change lanes), and sometimes simply bad behavior–you know yours already.
There are two important things I’ve discovered about habits:
1. We habituate the easiest way to get a task done. We don’t think of it as developing a habit, we just do a task. The next time we do it the same way. If it works, we don’t look for a way to improve it or do it differently. We habituate to whatever works first, even if it is not the best, easiest, least expensive, or best for others.
Examples: Leaving grocery carts standing in parking lots because we don’t want to roll it all the way back to the collection rack; parking in a handicap space because we are “just running in for five minutes;” cutting in front of someone in line because “I’m in a hurry,” or “I wasn’t looking to see if there was a line.”
Habituation happens fast. If we don’t question our actions, they become habits. Ones we don’t want to change. Ones we will fight to keep, simply because change takes effort.
2. Bad habits are often not “bad,” but an exaggeration of something that works for us. Example: You’ve learned to speak up in meetings, answering questions and making suggestions. It took a while for you to master this skill.
Once you got good at it, you kept growing the skill until you speak first all the time, interrupt others while they are speaking, and build on others’ suggestions without acknowledging their contribution–acting as if the whole idea is yours.
The skill is still useful, but overdoing it is not. Most bad habits are actually not evil, but an exaggeration of a skill.
Here’s an exercise I use with my coaching clients: Make a list of your three best characteristics. Now make a list of the three characteristics you like the least. (Three each–not three best and eighteen worst.) Look at the two lists and see if you can see a relationship between your best characteristics and your worst one. You’ll inevitably find that your worst habits are just your best characteristics, exaggerated out of proportion.
Don’t weed out your bad habits; just scale them back until they are behaviors that are useful.
—Quinn McDonald is a training developer and trainer in business writing. She is also a writing and creativity coach.